In 1935, German composer Carl Orff set 24 Medieval Latin poems to music, in a collection known as Carmina Burana. The first and most famous song, O Fortuna, has been used in several movies including John Boorman’s Excalibur. It describes fate both like a moon and a wheel, ever waxing and waning, and having ups and downs. Change is constant. Sometimes you’re high and sometimes low. In the end, life is like a landscape painting where the best moments are captured by the mountain peaks and the lowest points disappear in the valleys.
Judaism has a different perspective. Rather than considering highs and lows, it sees blessings and curses. The contrast can best be seen in a biblical story of the Israelites in the desert.
In Numbers 22, the kings of Moab and Midian call upon a famous non-Jewish prophet named Balaam to curse the Israelites, as the kings were nervous that the Jewish people would take over their land. Balak, the king of Midian, said to Balaam “Come then, put a curse upon this people for me, since they are too numerous for me; perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land.” (Numbers 22:6) When Balaam prepared to do so, God asked Balaam the nature of the request, and he said that Balak had said “Here is a people that came out from Egypt and hides the earth from view. Come now and curse them for me; perhaps I can engage them in battle and drive them off.” (22:11)
Rashi, the medieval commentator, looked at the difference in how Balaam referred to Balak’s request and said that Balaam actually wanted to drive the Jews from the world, not just the land of Moab, since he hated them more than Balak. While Rashi focused on the word “וְגֵרַשְׁתִּֽיו” to arrive at his opinion, one can also consider the highlighted text above “hides the earth from view,” (וַיְכַ֖ס אֶת־עֵ֣ין הָאָ֑רֶץ). The hidden parts are the valleys where people cannot be seen. It is typically when a person or people are most vulnerable – the lowest part of the wheel, to use the metaphor in O Fortuna. That a lowly people could be so powerful to defeat the Amorites and Og, the king of Habashan (Numbers 21) perplexed the prophet. It unnerved his worldview, so he hated them.
God forbade Balaam from carrying out the task, “Do not go with them. You must not curse that people, for they are blessed.” (22:12) But eventually Balaam does go to to see the Jewish nation per Balak’s request, and arrives at a place where “he could see a portion of the people,” (22:41) as he was in the heights and Jews were spread out in the valleys.
Balaam told Balak that he could not curse those who God would not curse. These people have an inner strength beyond the ups and downs of life, “As I see them from the mountain tops, Gaze on them from the heights, There is a people that dwells apart, Not reckoned among the nations.” (23:9)
Balak was angry with Balaam’s non-curses and considered that a better position and angle might elicit a more satisfying curse. Balak brought him to a few other mountaintops where he could see the entirety of the Jewish nation (23:13-14, 23:28) but it made no difference. God had blessed these people, even as they sat motionless in the valleys “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!” (24:5). Balaam had internalized that blessings and curses could happen at any station. He had broken the wheel.
Judaism has a different view of life beyond the motions of up and down; it considers states of blessings and curses. As a characteristic, they can exist in different situations and can even coexist at the same time. It is a dynamic which has incensed anti-Semites for millennia but also brought joy to those who bless the Jewish people in good times and bad.
When the Children of Israel were walking through the desert on their way to the Jewish holy land, they complained to Moses that they lacked good food and drink (Numbers 20:1-13). God commanded Moses to take his staff and to go with his brother Aaron to gather the people and speak to a rock to produce water. Moses grabbed his staff and instead of speaking to the rock, he hit it with his staff which shot forth water. Despite producing the desired result of delivering water, Moses and Aaron were punished with not being able to enter the Jewish promised land. The site became known as Mei Merivah, Bitter Waters.
On its face, the difference in Moses’ action seems minor, hitting versus speaking to the rock. The end result was that water came out and the Jews were happy. It begs the question why God punished Moses and Aaron so severely.
When God commanded Moses to take the staff when he stood before the Jewish people, it was to show that he was acting as an agent of God. The staff was a symbol of Moses acting on God’s behalf. However, Moses used the staff as a tool with which to strike the rock. The Jews witnessed Moses producing the water with his strike of the implement upon the rock, rather than internalizing that God had produced the water. Yes, the Jews got what they wanted but they attributed the benefit solely from the hands of Moses and Aaron rather than acknowledging the actual source of the blessing.
Mistaking a symbol as a tool goes on in Israel today as well.
Jerusalem Day is a wonderful celebration which commemorates the reunification of Jerusalem which had been divided when the Jordanian army invaded and illegally annexed half of the city. For 19 years (1949-1967), the Arabs forbade Jews from living, visiting or praying in the Old City and at the Jewish Temple Mount and Western Wall. The anti-Semitic edicts changed in June 1967 after Jordan attacked Israel again but this time lost, a true cause for celebration by human rights activists everywhere.
During the Jerusalem Day festivities, some Israeli nationalists have a Flag Parade where they march through the streets of Jerusalem, including the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, waiving Israeli flags as they demonstrate that the area is under Israeli sovereignty. The group often taunts the Palestinian and Israeli Arabs as they sing the Israeli national anthem and practice their Arab curse words.
Like their ancestors of 3,300 years ago, the Children of Israel got what they want but sometimes miss the important message: the Israeli flag and national anthem are symbols of Jewish sovereignty once again in their holy land. To use them as tools to provoke Arabs undermines the blessing.
The reunification of Judaism’s holiest city should be marked on holidays and every day with Jews walking, praying, learning and living in every corner of Jerusalem. Proudly wearing Jewish symbols and speaking holy words will enable all of the Children of Israel – including Moses and Aaron – to be present in Judaism’s eternal capital.
The ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter is represented in mathematics by the Greek lower letter Pi. To visualize this relationship, consider using a string to make a circle, and then straighten that string to run right across the circle through its center. The ratio of the length of the entire circle to that straight diameter line is pi, constant regardless of the size of the circle.
Beyond the geometry, people are drawn to this figure for other reasons. The number, when represented as a decimal goes on forever. People have used modern computers to take the number out to a trillion decimals! The first numbers 3.14159265359… are often abbreviated as 3.14.
Pi can also represent fertility. A circle is often used to represent women, such as in genealogy tables. Women were likely given the circle (as opposed to men who are denoted by squares) because of the roundness of their bellies while pregnant. Meanwhile, lines are used as a connection to spouses and offspring.
Pi represents the intersection of these ideas – women, generations, an infinite line and constancy. They all come together in the matriarchs of the Hebrew Bible.
Genesis 15:5 tells the story of God telling Abram that his descendants will be like the stars:
He took him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He added, “So shall your offspring be.”
Immediately after this story, Abram took Hagar, Sarai’s maid because Sarai was barren, and had a child with her. Some years later, Sarai (then Sarah) was able to have a child, Isaac. After Sarah died, Abraham took a third wife, Keturah, and had six children with her (Genesis 25:1-2).
Abraham’s son Isaac had only one wife, Rebecca. The Jewish people continued its lineage through Jacob who fathered children through four women: Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah.
This is the beginning of the promise to Abraham to have offspring too numerous to count: he had children with three women, Isaac had children with one woman, and Jacob sired children with four women: 3 1 4. Hebrew pi is infinite and constant, just like God’s promise to Abraham.
On the Sabbath just before the Jewish holiday of Purim, Jews around the world read a short story from Deuteronomy 25:17-19 about remembering the ancient people of Amalek who attacked the Jews as they left Egypt:
Therefore, when the LORD your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!
The beginning of the reading and the end have seemingly conflicting commandments. At first we are commanded to remember what Amalek did, however, the end of the reading instructs us to block the memory of Amalek. Further, the final instruction is reinforced by “Do not forget” to wipe out the memory, another layer of conflicting commands.
Are Jews ordered to remember or to forget?
A closer reading of the verses reveals how to satisfy each commandment and the important unifying message.
The first sentence is a command to remember “what Amalek did,” their ACTIONS. Those people committed a horrific attack and that assault should not be forgotten.
The latter verse is to “blot out the memory of Amalek,” to block the IMPACT ON THE PYSCHE that the attack left on the Jewish people. The Jewish people were just getting to know the first tastes of freedom after generations of slavery, and were set upon by Amalek. The emotional and physical scars left on the Jews would be carried for the rest of their lives. But God made them victorious and He does not want the memory of the pain to overshadow that victory. More specifically, once Jews are situated in “safety from all your enemies” in the land of Israel that God gave “as a hereditary portion,” it is important that past victimhood not continue to negatively color the Jewish outlook on the world.
The message of Parshat Zachor is to remember past atrocities of evil nations but to not let the scars from those encounters cloud the vision of the peaceful present which God has provided.
The second book of the Pentateuch is called “Exodus” in English but called “Names” in Hebrew due to the opening lines. In reviewing the first ten sentences of the book, there is seemingly a deeper message about the names themselves.
Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.”
The first sentence opens with calling Jacob by his changed name “Israel” before switching to his birth name “Jacob.” The text then lists all of the names of Jacob’s sons and subsequently pivots back to “Israel” after Joseph and his brothers died. At the end of the section, not only does the text pivot to using “sons of Israel” to include women and later generations but the new king in Egypt goes further in calling them a “nation of the sons of Israel.”
There is clearly more to appreciate in the names employed.
Birth Names of Human-Tension
The names given to the Jewish forefathers are explained inside the text in Genesis with some rationale given of how the parents felt at the time of the baby’s birth. Often, the names portend events in the future.
Consider how Sarah laughed when she heard she was going to have a child (Genesis 18:12) and then later Abraham named him Isaac (Genesis 21:3) after the Hebrew name for laughter. Sarah seemingly approved of the name (Genesis 21:6) only to soon witness Isaac’s half-brother Ishmael making fun of him (Genesis 21:8). Isaac’s name was an omen of things to come or perhaps served as the catalyst for how people perceived him. Maybe both.
One can see the impact of names when reading about Jacob’s eldest son, Reuben. Born to an unloved wife, Leah, Genesis 29:32 describes one of the saddest baby-namings in the Bible: “Leah conceived and bore a son, and named him Reuben; for she declared, “It means: ‘The LORD has seen my affliction’; it also means: ‘Now my husband will love me.’” How that name must have weighed on Reuben! To carry a name that shows his mother was unloved! With Leah’s sister as another wife and two handmaids also producing half-brothers, the family dynamic was extremely difficult. When his mother’s sister Rachel died years later and Jacob opted to still not enter Leah’s tent but that of Bilhah, Rachel’s handmaid, Reuben was apoplectic and raped Bilhah (Genesis 35:22).
The bible is deliberately silent on Jacob’s reaction to the event, stopping the story mid-sentence and starting a new paragraph with “Now the sons of Jacob were twelve in number.” Seemingly, Reuben is not punished by his horrific act and remained part of the collective twelve sons. Perhaps Jacob acknowledged that it was Reuben’s obligation to fight for the honor of his spurned mother, maybe even uniquely among Leah’s six sons, as he bore the name of desperate love.
Jacob himself was named by his mother Rebecca for the contentious relationship he would have with his brother Esau. In Genesis 25:23, God told Rebecca that two nations were struggling inside her womb and she named Jacob in Genesis 25:26 because he was clutching the heel (ekev in Hebrew) of Esau. This highly fraught relationship continued for years until an angel renamed Jacob in a night struggle, seemingly redoing the struggle in Rebecca’s womb. This time, Jacob came out on top but instead of clutching the heel of the winner, he incurred a permanent limp. As the victor, he was renamed Israel (Genesis 32:29) “for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” It was only at this point, stripped of a name that carried the significance of brotherly-confrontation, that Jacob met with Esau who had come to meet him with a 400-person army. Peace prevailed.
Karma of the Nation of Israel
After reviewing the nature of how parent-given names influenced the lives of the biblical forefathers, we can take a fresh look at the opening sentences of Exodus in a different manner.
From the middle of the first sentence through the sixth, the Bible names Jacob and his sons by their parent-given names with Joseph separated from everyone – twice. First, he is described as already living in Egypt and then specifying his death while not listing any other deaths in the family. Seemingly this fits the narrative to come, that a new Egyptian king did not know Joseph. A casual reader would infer that the new king did not know how Joseph saved the entire region from starvation and made Egypt into a rich and powerful nation.
But such a linear reading could have been accomplished without starting and closing the section with the name “bnai Yisrael,” at first being the sons of Jacob, then the extended family and ultimately entire nation of Israel.
The birth-named middle section is a family set upon itself. As sons of Jacob, they were dysfunctional to an extreme: Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery after throwing him into a pit; the sons lied to their father that Joseph was dead; Reuben raped his half-brothers’ mother. The list goes on. This family of Jacob was a quarrelsome bunch, quite distinct from Joseph whose position was established in Egypt. The Egyptians tolerated the sons of Jacob only because of – and under the control of – Joseph.
When Joseph died and a new king arose, it was not so much that the new king no longer appreciated what Joseph did for Egypt as much as he no longer saw a small fragmented family under the control of an Egyptian prince. Instead, the “sons of Israel” had become generations and ultimately a “nation of the sons of Israel,” large and no longer under the control of a reliable Egyptian. As alarming, this rag tag group had a blessed name, meaning that it will prevail in dealing with “beings divine and human.” This unnerved the new king.
She’mot, the Book of Names, is not only a story of how a family became a nation, but how such family matured beyond individual names of personal conflict to realize the full-potential of its divine name.
The first part of the Hebrew bible showcases leaders who exhibit a full range of leadership qualities and attributes. The first monotheist, Abraham, was a religious leader who spoke with God, a military leader who fought battles, and a skilled negotiator who struck treaties with foreign kings. In later books of Old Testament, as the Jews took kings in Israel, the word of God was often imparted by a prophet who kept the ruler in line with God’s desires in a division of labor.
As Jews lost their holy land, the spiritual leaders assumed greater responsibilities to lead the community. Acting as administrators, the rabbis often made poor decisions, such as Rabbi Akiva who backed the Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans in 132CE which almost led to the complete destruction of the Jewish people. Thousands of years later, many prominent rabbis in Europe did not lead their communities to flee to either the holy land or the United States and they perished in the Holocaust. Even today, many brilliant rabbis are not enforcing health protocols amid the pandemic, leading to hundreds of deaths.
It is therefore important to take note and appreciate a rabbi who was able to lead on a local, national and international level both on a spiritual and political basis. Such was Lord Jonathan Sachs who passed away on November 7, 2020.
Lord Sachs was not only the rabbi of the largest synagogue in England, but served as the Chief Rabbi of England who had a seat in the House of Lords. He wrote 25 books, was a professor at several universities and spoke around the world. He stood before English Parliament to clearly denounce anti-Semitism in a speech heard around the world. His message for compassion, love of every Jew, contributing to society, love of God, love of learning, commitment to Israel and building interfaith bonds made him a favorite among Jews and non-Jews around the world.
God created the word through division, separating light and darkness, water and land, and man and woman. Over history, humanity saw similar benefits and instituted mechanisms to separate powers such as military, political, judicial and religious. So it is a rare situation for a leader to earn the respect of so many beyond an anointed title. Such was Lord Jonathan Sachs, an Orthodox rabbi who not only led the spiritual lives of the Jews of England but inspired people of all faiths around the world. May his memory be a blessing.
The Jewish new year, Rosh Ha’shana, is celebrated as the anniversary of the birth of Adam, the first human. It also marks the beginning of the Ten Days of Repentance which culminates in Yom Kippur, the Day of Judgment for every Jew each year.
Around the world, Jews read a section of the Bible during the two days of Rosh Ha’ashana. On the first day, Genesis 21:1-34 is read telling the story of Abraham sending his son Ishmael out from his home, and on the second day, Genesis 22:1-24 is read, describing the near sacrifice of Abraham’s son Isaac.
The Torah readings seem like strange choices to mark the beginning of mankind. Why isn’t the story of creating Adam and Eve read on the first day and the story of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden on the second day to highlight the ramifications of sin to capture the essence of judgment? Those would be the obvious selections to mark history by recounting history.
The Bible readings direct us to not narrowly focus on history but on civilization.
While Adam and Eve were the parents of all humanity, they were deeply flawed. Their first two sons fought, with one killing the other. Their surviving sons and daughters committed incest as they populated the world. In reading the story of Genesis, one cannot find a single exchange between humanity’s original parents and any of their offspring. Adam and Eve were seemingly terrible role models for future generations.
The Torah portions of Rosh Ha’shana take on the issue of parenting. Abraham is directed by God to separate his fighting sons. At tremendous personal pain, Abraham sends off the older Ishmael with the promise that he will become a patriarch of a great nation. While Isaac remains with Abraham, God soon commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac until He stays the execution at the last minute. In sharp contrast to the non-parenting exhibited by the world’s first parents, the father of the Arab and Jewish nations was actively – and painfully – involved with setting each of his sons on a path towards fathering nations.
The theme of how to live with family members is capped at the Yom Kippur mincha service. The very last Torah reading as the Day of Judgment comes to a close comes from Leviticus 18 which deals with forbidden sexual relationships, the majority of which surround family members. Like the readings on Rosh Ha’shana, Jews do not recount the obvious choice – in this case, the Ten Commandments – on their most solemn day; they review how to act in a constructive civilized manner with family in sharp contrast to mankind’s founders.
Jews mark the birth of Adam every year but refrain both from naming it “Adam’s Day” and recounting the family he created, and opt instead to map a course for a healthy thriving society.
This can serve as a template for how many Americans think about Columbus Day. Some people now consider the celebration of a man who was a poor leader as a terrible message for society. Others object to the European takeover of the Americas and choose to call the day “Indigenous People’s Day.”
That is self-righteous inanity.
Columbus’s landing in America was a momentous event for the world in which 99% of humanity was introduced to nearly one-third of the planet’s land mass. It forever changed the course of history.
The anniversary must be marked but, like Adam, not necessarily by idolizing the man. It should certainly not call out the “indigenous people” who did not alter the course of civilization. It is the land that must be considered at such time, not the people. Perhaps the correct name is “America Day” and should celebrate the incredible natural resources and beauty of the two continents.
Important events should be marked by their history and consecrated by the related timeless message, whether in regards to man or land.
Antisemitism comes in a variety of colors and creeds. The most commonly called out in the media is alt-right White supremacists. The mascot for these Jew-haters is David Duke, a leader in the Ku Klux Klan who was a member of the Louisiana House of Representatives from 1989 to 1992. His antisemitism combines race, religion and politics as White, Christian and Conservative into a singular orientation of “White supremacy.”
Antisemitism is found in the other extreme but often viewed in three distinct lenses: Black, Muslim and Leftist. Many notable anti-Semites easily check off one or two of the boxes such as Louis Farrakhan (Black and Muslim), Linda Sarsour (Muslim and Leftist) and Roger Waters (Leftist). These anti-Semites often defy the neat caricature of David Duke on the right but the trifecta can best be painted as Ilhan Omar, a Black Muslim Somali-American who is serving in the U.S. House of Representatives from Minnesota.
The asymmetry of the amalgam on one side (White+Christian+Right) and the dissected anti-Semites on the other (Black/Muslim/Left) creates a number of issues in confronting baseless hatred of groups.
Group Hate. There is an easy understanding that not all Blacks or Muslims or Progressives hate Jews. People are evaluated on the basis of their statements and actions, not by the inherent traits of their persons. However, the same cannot be said of the amalgam painted on the right in which many people view White Christian Conservatives as White supremacist racists and anti-Semites unless proven otherwise. The portrayal of the alt-right is that of the establishment patriarchy, of smug White men of privilege who harbor hate. Many people jump to a conclusion that a White Republican is a racist – or as Hillary Clinton said, “a deplorable” – by default. They therefore quickly harbor their own hate for such persons.
Undeserved Absolution. The converse is that the Black anti-Semites as well as Muslims, Leftists and women are given a pass as they are considered the persecuted as minorities. People seek to either ignore or excuse their Jew-hatred (Blacks kill Jews because of gentrification; Muslims hate Jews because they control Muslim holy land). But ugly racism and antisemitism are noxious from any source and the shields assembled by progressive defenders are unworthy for the likes of Omar and compatriot Rashida Tlaib.
Smug Self-Righteousness. Knee-jerk reactions to hating White Christians as racists and absolving Blacks, Muslims and Leftists goes beyond stupidity. It actively places a person in the very same camp of racists and anti-Semites that they seek to distance themselves from, by participating in group hatred OF Conservatives and encouraging group hate FROM Progressives. Wrapping the bile in smug self-righteousness only makes these haters more blind and unable to change.
The liberal media fosters these flawed appraoches.
Recently, The New Yorker covered the book “White Too Long,” with an opening:
“In a 2019 nationwide survey, eighty-six per cent of white evangelical Protestants and seventy per cent of both white mainline Protestants and white Catholics said that the “Confederate flag is more a symbol of Southern pride than of racism”; nearly two-thirds of white Christians over all said that killings of African-American men by the police are isolated incidents rather than part of a broader pattern of mistreatment; and more than six in ten white Christians disagreed with the statement that “generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class.”
For the magazine and book, the poll analyzed White Christians. It coupled race with religion and concluded that not reaching the morally appropriate conclusions of the author about the state of upward mobility for Blacks and agreeing that there is systemic racism in police departments marked this group as overwhelmingly racist.
Yet the magazine and most liberal media wrote NOTHING about the ADL polls of 2014 and 2015 that showed that Muslim countries are almost completely antisemitic and that in non-Muslim countries, Muslims are three to five times more likely to be anti-Semites than Christians. The ADL polls questions were also not so vague as those posited in “White Too Long”: the respondents said that Jews have too much power and too much money and only care about their own. These were direct and clear sentiments of Jew-hatred by Muslims, not inferred racism as was done for White Christians. If anything, the media did the very opposite of giving weight to the study, as New York magazine doubted the entirety of the study in an article called “The ADL’s Flawed Anti-Semitism Survey.”
But basing White Christians in the media is noble. The author of “White Too Long” was featured in NBCNews, The Atlantic, NPR and The Washington Post. CNN covered the book and led that these White Christian racists are all supporters of President Donald Trump. With the amalgam of Whites+Christians+Rightists as racists complete, it is easy to add antisemitism to the mix.
Society has reached a particularly bizarre point where a person’s inherent traits are the marks of being a racist and anti-Semite as well as being incapable of being a racist and anti-Semite.
Whites are inherently racist, or at a minimum benefit from a system of racism, while Blacks cannot be racists as they have no power
Christians are not taught love but hate, while Muslims have a different set of values which we simply don’t understand
Conservatives’ focus on capitalism is cold and ripe for exploitation, while progressives’ orientation towards empathy precludes baseless hatred
Intersectionality has made all Whites and Christians and Conservatives evil both individually and collectively, while it has simultaneously granted perfect absolution to Blacks, Muslims and Progressives.
This modern formulation is pure nonsense but is becoming the lifeblood of the Democratic Party. It has made them blind to the mainstreaming of anti-Semites in their midst while making it impossible to work in a bi-partisan manner on a wide range of issues.
All people must consider others based on their actions and comments, not their race, religion, gender or political party. As such, people should despise Ilhan Omar as much as they hate David Duke because Jew-hatred is not the sole dominion of a single type.
David Duke’s March 2019 Twitter feed on admiration for Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN). Term “Z.O.G.” means “Zionist Occupation Government”
This 13th century Latin poem was put to music by Carl Orff in 1935-6. It describes fate as an ever “whirling wheel” in which a person goes through life with ups and downs. The pace of the rise and fall is unclear, but presumably happens over time as the wheel slowly rotates.
There are, however, moments in time when two competing realities exist side-by-side. A woman may be pregnant one second and a mother the next. The transition lasts for a moment.
There are also situations when a transition is not only defined by time but by space. A person can be inside a house and then outside. A simple threshold is crossed to change not only location but situation.
In rare situations, alternative realities are neither separated nor juxtaposed, but twist and fold upon each other. Such is the Night of the Exodus and the first night of Passover.
The Night of the Exodus
On the night of last plague on Egypt, the killing of the first born, the Jews were commanded to take a lamb, slaughter it, paint its blood on the doorposts of the home, then roast the lamb and devour every morsel.
The lamb was considered a deity in ancient Egypt. Killing it, roasting it and displaying its blood on the outside of the homes was designed as a clear affront to Egyptian sensibilities. They could smell the roasting of the meat and see how the Jews enjoyed sticking their faces in it.
Remarkably, the Jews did this while still slaves. They were still in Egypt and not yet free as they feasted and killed the Gods of their masters. They took liberties associated with free folk, pulling their future freedom into the moment of slavery. These choreographed actions helped transform their mental state from one of servants to masters. When God said “And the blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign for you,” (Exodus 12: 13) it was truly designed as a way for the slaves to break the orientation of servitude.
Every generation afterwards was also commanded to remember that remarkable night – to place themselves as if they were there thousands of years ago – making that transformation at the Seder, holding the matzah, the bread of slavery, together with the pascal lamb, the symbol of salvation. Holding both items together serves as a vehicle to transform time, space and mental state, just as Jewish ancestor did long ago.
The Passover Hagaddah captures the essence of these curious juxtapositions and transformations at the beginning of the Magid section with a short paragraph called Ha Lachma Anya.
This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.
Taken literally, each person at the Seder is facing a fossil, a 3,300-year old object. Perhaps more incredible, this item from antiquities is actually connected to relatives who lived far way (time AND place) in Egypt. On this special night we display a family heirloom.
All those who are hungry, let them enter and eat.
Based on the juxtaposition of the sentences it would appear that we are going to eat this precious piece of history. While we may be a tad hungry, it seems inappropriate to eat something irreplaceable.
All who are in need, let them come celebrate Passover.
This sentence seemingly addresses the whole world. As food is the cure for hunger, Passover must be the remedy for “need.” It is unclear whether the needs are physical – like food for hunger – mental, spiritual or emotional. Perhaps celebrating Passover helps them all.
Now we are here, next year in the land of Israel.
The paragraph pivots again. After two invitations for people to participate in the meal and holiday, there is a declaration that we will celebrate next Passover in Israel. Presumably, this is for all of the people who we just invited to sit down with us, to celebrate together in Israel.
This year we are enslaved, next year we will be free.
Another interesting juxtaposition of sentences of here versus next year. Does this suggest that we are here now and enslaved and next year we will be free and in Israel? Or, should we rethink the entire discussion: are we reciting words that are thousands of years old, just as we point to matzahs of our ancestors? This entire scene is a reenactment of the last night in Egypt, when Jews were on the threshold of freedom, on their journey to the land of Israel.
The first night of Passover we do not simply imagine lives as slaves in Egypt nor our freedom that we have today. We reenact that pivotal moment of transforming ourselves in time, place and mental health which happened on the last night in Egypt, when we jumped forward and feasted and imagined life in the promised land, even while anchored in the reality of slavery.
Like no other year in over 3,000 years, with a pandemic upon us with many mourning departed loved ones and spending Seders in solitude, let us all say Ha Lachma Anya and pull forward that future of freedom to live full lives in the complete Jerusalem.
When Covid-19 first began killing people in China it felt like a disease far away, a distant threat so remote it did not register. When it later arrived in Iran, the focus became the curious relationship between China and Iran, not that the disease was going global. Then it came to Italy, and just a short time later it was in almost every country.
Yet even as the virus found local victims, people chose to manufacture distance. This was only deadly for the elderly. It killed those with compromised health. There was no true need to worry, as the vast majority of people who tested positive for the coronavirus suffered from a mere cold.
That attitude was best captured in an interview with a teenager enjoying spring break in Florida “If I get corona, I get corona. I’m not going to let it stop me from partying.”
This was a plague for “others” and the guidelines calling for “social-distancing” was not relevant for them.
It is something to consider during this holiday of Passover, when plagues came for the Egyptians.
The Quarantine of Goshen
The story of the plagues which helped free the Jews from slavery in Egypt 3,300 years ago had two parts: the first nine plagues and the final one.
During the initial plagues, the land, animals and people of Egypt were attacked broadly with a variety of vermin and afflictions, except for the Jews as God protected them. However, for the final plague, the killing of the first born, the Jews were asked to take specific actions to facilitate their protection. They were to take a lamb, paint its blood on the doorposts of the house, roast the lamb and eat it; a slew of activities which were unnecessary for the first nine plagues. Clearly God was capable of inflecting a plague on segments of the population as He had done nine times before but for the final plague, God wanted the Jews to take a part in their own salvation.
The story of the tenth plague unfolds in three parts. First, Moses addressed Pharaoh in Exodus 11: 4-8 saying that God will kill every first-born in Egypt except for the Jews “in order that you may know that the LORD makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.” This plague was specifically designed to highlight the “other.” All people are not the same and will not be impacted the same way.
But the story and message seem to morph. In Exodus 12: 1-20 God addressed the Jews through Moses and Aaron with a detailed plan of the various steps the Jews needed to take during their last night in Egypt, and it wasn’t so much about how to pack. Tucked among the twenty sentences was a critical line “And the blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign for you: when I see the blood I will pass over you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.” The key to avoiding the impact of the plague is “blood on the houses,” an item that was mentioned in passing six sentences earlier as part of a long list of things to do.
God had gone from not asking the Jews to do anything during the first nine plagues, to putting forth a long list of tasks, one of which was – incidentally – key to avoiding the impact of the plague.
In the third part of the revelation of the tenth plague, Moses addressed the Elders in Exodus 12: 21-27 and provided a much more direct plan for salvation: “Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and apply some of the blood that is in the basin to the lintel and to the two doorposts. None of you shall go outside the door of his house until morning. For when the LORD goes through to smite the Egyptians, He will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and the LORD will pass over the door and not let the Destroyer enter and smite your home.” Moses went to the crux of the matter to get the people to focus, directly connecting the blood on the doorposts to salvation. He also elaborated on God’s command telling people to stay inside – to self-quarantine – during the deadly plague.
The story of the deadly plague evolved in a curious fashion. At first Moses told Pharaoh that the plague will be very selective – it will only come for the first-born and only from Egyptians, because “the LORD makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.” God sees that the people of Egypt and Israel are different and will act accordingly.
But it becomes less clear that this is actually true. God doesn’t seemingly recognize any difference as He asks the Jews to paint the outside of their homes with blood. It is the home markings that God sees. If Jews wandered the streets that night, they would presumably have died, which is why Moses clarified that no one should leave their houses. The distinction between Egyptians and Israelites that Moses discussed with Pharaoh was one of direction, not of personhood.
“Death of Pharaoh’s First Born” painted 1872 by Lawrence Alma -Tadema (1836-1912)
Plagues and deadly viruses may present as threats for “others” but that is delusional. Neither youth nor religion will serve as shield, and leaders as far back as Moses understood that directing people to self-quarantine in their homes is the best precaution.